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August 6, 2018

Fascinating Stories Behind 19 Stunning Portraits Taken by Julia Margaret Cameron in the Late 19th Century

Julia Margaret Cameron was a British photographer. She became known for her portraits of celebrities of the time, and for photographs with Arthurian and other legendary or heroic themes.

“I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me, and at length the longing has been satisfied.” – Julia Margaret Cameron
Cameron's photographic career was short, spanning eleven years of her life. She took up photography at the relatively late age of 48, when she was given a camera as a present. Her style was not widely appreciated in her own day: her choice to use a soft focus and to treat photography as an art as well as a science, by manipulating the wet collodion process, caused her works to be viewed as "slovenly", marred by "mistakes" and bad photography. She found more acceptance among pre-Raphaelite artists than among photographers. Her work has influenced modern photographers, especially her closely cropped portraits. Her house, Dimbola Lodge, on the Isle of Wight is open to the public.

1. Julia Jackson (1864)

Cameron was especially drawn to photographing the leading men of the period but she also had a range of favourite female sitters. This portrait of Julia Jackson, Cameron’s niece and godchild, was taken three years before she married her first husband, Herbert Duckworth, at the age of nineteen. He was sixty-six and died only three years later. She later married Leslie Stephen, a writer and critic, and two of their daughters were the painter Vanessa Bell and the author Virginia Woolf.

Cameron loved to photograph the young Jackson, taking her first portrait in 1864 and the last ten years later. Her well-defined features and distinctive bone structure inspired Cameron who experimented with lighting her face in various ways. This is one of several photographs she made at the same sitting in which she focuses our attention on the attenuated and taut neck of her sitter, leaving most of her features in shadow. Jackson was also the only woman that Cameron did not require to appear in costume at some point: it appears that her enigmatic and strong face alone was sufficient to fascinate the photographer.

Cameron was especially inspired by portraiture and created some of the period’s most poetic and physiologically intense portraits. As she wrote some two years after she took this portrait:
“I have been just engaged in doing ... a series of Life sized heads – They are not only From the Life but to the Life and startle the eye with wonder & delight. I hope they will astound the Public & reveal more of the mystery of this heaven & our art – They lose nothing in beauty & gain much in power.” (Julia Margaret Cameron, 1866 in Isobel Crombie, Re-View: 170 years of photography, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2009, p.34).

2. Ellen Terry at Age Sixteen (negative 1864; print about 1875)

Julia Margaret Cameron probably made this contemplative portrait of Ellen Terry as a new bride during the Shakespearean actress's honeymoon stay at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, where Cameron lived. Terry had married the portrait painter George Frederick Watts, who was thirty years her senior; the marriage, orchestrated by Cameron and her sisters, was a brief and unhappy union.

Terry's forlorn expression and nervous gesture may be an actress's performance put on for the camera. Her demeanor, indicated by the title Sadness, which Cameron gave to another print of this image, may also indicate Terry's realization that her marriage was a mistake. Employing a non-fading print process used for commercially distributed pictures, Cameron's printer made multiple carbon prints available for purchase by Terry's and Cameron's fans.

3. I Wait (Rachel Gurney) (1872)

Laura (Gurney) Troubridge Young Rachel Gurney's forlorn expression does not quite fit her role as an angel, but in a humorous way, her performance supports this photograph's staged look. She is perched on a box that is covered loosely in drapery and positioned stiffly on a table, with fake wings attached to her. Resting her chin on her crossed arms, she appears resigned to her fate of posing for the camera. Julia Margaret Cameron made a suite of photographs based on putti from Renaissance and post-Renaissance paintings. As children, Rachel and her sister Laura were often recruited to play the cherubs. Years later, they remembered the patience it took to pose for their great aunt.

4. A Holy Family (1872)

Cameron would have been interested in that notion of the holy family as working class, humble, peasant people. She used her maid Mary Hillier as Mary Madonna, and two local children as John the Baptist and Jesus.
“I think she was interested in that contradiction between the high and the low--between the clean and the dirty, the mortal and the divine, the ordinary and the extraordinary.” – Victoria Olsen, From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography
Soft-focus and dramatic lighting imbue this photograph with a painterly quality reminiscent of works by Renaissance artists. At least that may have been Julia Margaret Cameron's intention as part of her strategy to elevate photography to the status of high-art. By contrast, Cameron's subjects--the Madonna with infants Jesus and John the Baptist--appear humble in their simple clothing and quiet demeanor. Cameron's interest in the working-class origins of the Holy Family stemmed from contemporary biblical scholarship and art that focused on the historical context of Christ's life, frequently portraying him as a carpenter's son.

5. Girl, Ceylon (1875 - 1879)

Dramatic lighting emphasizes this Ceylonese girl's physical features. Her shiny pearl necklace and white shirt stand out against her dark skin and bare feet. The child's legs are tucked close to her body, and her arms are folded protectively around her waist. Julia Margaret Cameron's tight framing confines the subject within a small space, making her slight unease more noticeable . But the full-figure composition also suggests a distance between photographer and subject that is both physical and cultural.

Cameron made this photograph near the end of her life, when she lived in what is now Sri Lanka. This Tamil child may have been the daughter of a worker on her family's estate. Although Cameron had a benevolent attitude toward the Ceylonese, she supported the British Empire's civilizing mission in Asia, as was typical of her time. This picture appears to blend an ethnographic point of view with Cameron's more intimate approach to portraiture of family and friends.

6. Marie Spartali (1870)

“So rich are her likenesses in tone ... that they attain ... the value of works of art. These productions are made “out of focus” as the technical phrase is, and although sadly unconventional in the eyes of photographers, give us hope that something higher than mechanical success is attainable by the camera.” – Unsigned, "The Photographic Society," Athenaeum , June 4, 1864
This photograph imitates the soft, dark tones of a charcoal drawing from which a hazy figure emerges. Marie Spartali is centered in the frame, creating a symmetry that adds a sense of calm to her contemplative expression. Similar shades of gray visually echo one another--like Spartali's pinned-up hair, full lips, and the flower detail on her dress.

Although Spartali's specific physical traits are blurred, Julia Margaret Cameron did not intend to represent her as an ambiguous, allegorical figure. Cameron liked to pose her Anglo-Greek friend in roles from classical mythology. In this case, the photograph's title declares the sitter's true identity. Perhaps that is because, in addition to modeling for several Victorian painters, Spartali was an accomplished artist in her own right.

7. The Rosebud Garden of Girls (June 1868)

As evolutionary science and increasing secularism transformed the way Victorians understood the world, Cameron remained a devout Christian. She photographed influential public figures of her day as well as the women of her household, casting them in allegories of literary and religious subjects. Like her artistic contemporaries, the Pre-Raphaelite painters, who modeled their work on medieval religious and mythological art, Cameron intended her photographs to evince a connection between the spiritual and the natural realms.

8. Prayer and Praise (1865)

This image recreates the scene of the Nativity, in which Christ's mother, the Virgin Mary, and her husband Joseph watch over the newborn, sleeping Christ child. Julia Margaret Cameron may have decided to include a fourth figure, the young girl at the left, to add pictorial balance to the composition. The girl may represent an angel, as her outstretched hand hovering above the infant's head appears to be a gesture of blessing.

The sleeping child's peaceful repose is emphasized by the contemplative silence of the surrounding figures. A spiritual calm is conveyed in the image by the adults' downcast eyes. Cameron powerfully evokes the mood of the Nativity scene through her careful, sensitive rendering of a sacred subject.

9. Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere (1874)

In 1874, at the Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson's suggestion, Julia Margaret Cameron undertook a series of illustrations for his epic poem Idylls of the King. A friend and neighbor of Cameron at Freshwater, Tennyson published the collection of poems in 1872; the poems had taken him nearly forty years to write.

The images that Cameron created for the Idylls are the most illustrative works she made; she took great care with the details of costumes and props to insure the photographs' faithfulness to his narrative. She employed a variety of people as models, going to great lengths to ensure the appropriateness of sitter to subject.

This image depicts the final embrace of the tragic lovers before they are forever parted: And Lancelot ever promised, but remain'd, And still they met and met. Again she said, “O Lancelot, if thou love me get thee hence,” And then they were agreed upon a night (When the good King should not be there) to meet And part forever, Passion-pale they met And greeted; hands in hands, and eye to eye, Low on the border of her couch they sat Stammering and staring; it was their last hour, A madness of farewells.

10. Thomas Carlyle (1867)

Photograph of Thomas Carlyle, head and shoulders, almost profile right. This portrait of Thomas Carlyle (1795 - 1881), celebrated historian and essayist, was widely admired by Cameron's artist friends, including Millais, Rossetti and Watts.

In 1869 Queen Victoria met Carlyle at a reception at Westminster Abbey. She described him as 'a strange looking, eccentric old Scotchman, who holds forth in a rather drawling melancholy voice upon Scotland & the utter degeneration of everything!'

11. The Whisper of the Muse / Portrait of G.F. Watts (4/1/1865)

George Frederick Watts was a renowned portrait painter as well as a friend and mentor to the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Cameron photographed Watts frequently and in different guises. Here she cast him in the role of musician with his muse or guiding spirit looking intently over his left shoulder, as though she is “whispering” some artistic encouragement in his ear. He, in turn, looks down upon the figure of the child on his right, who appears to be entranced by his violin playing.

The violin is the visual focus of the composition and establishes a connection between the visual and performing arts. The concept of “muse” derives from Greek mythology and indicates the influence of classical sources in Cameron's work. On the mount board under this image, her inscription, “a Triumph!,” demonstrates the degree to which she felt this photograph captured the relationship of artist and muse.

12. Beatrice (1866)

Julia Margaret Cameron often directed female models to represent tragic heroines whose sorrow made them beautiful. Cameron composed this image around the sitter's downcast eyes and scrolling hair--which spills out from under a turban. Cameron's niece, May Prinsep, plays the role of Beatrice, the central figure of Percy Bysshe Shelley's play, The Cenci (1819). Prinsep's sorrowful expression conveys the character's resignation to her fate.

Beatrice Cenci, the daughter of a Roman count, lived in Florence during the late 1500s. After Beatrice conspired with her mother and brother to have her father killed, the trial brought to light his cruelty, which included an attempt to rape her. Although the story won public sympathy, the family was nonetheless executed. Cameron was fascinated by this true story and made several photographic studies based on it.

13. Paul and Virginia (1864)

The subject of this photograph derives from the French romantic novel Paul et Virginieof 1787, which was translated and widely read in Victorian England. The models are Freddie Gould and Elizabeth Keown, local children from the Isle of Wight, where Julia Margaret Cameron photographed.

The novel centers around a shipwreck, during which the heroine must shed her clothes to be rescued; she refuses to sacrifice her modesty and drowns. Cameron does not attempt to illustrate an actual scene from the text; instead, she suggests the novel's tropical setting through a bamboo-handled parasol, scattered greenery underfoot, and the models' appropriately disheveled drapery. Cameron often took well-known works of literature or painting as inspiration for individual images and then interpreted them loosely to communicate a universal underlying theme.

14. Venus Chiding Cupid and Removing His Wings (1872)

Cameron was surrounded by children and identified strongly with her role as a mother. Children made natural subjects for her work because they were readily available, and she could easily cajole them into participation. She often cast them as angels, viewing the young as closer to God due to their proximity in years from birth. Here Cameron posed a maternal Venus, played by her maid Mary Hillier, attending to a sleepy cupid.

15. Annie (1/1/1864)

On the paper on which this print is mounted, Julia Margaret Cameron inscribed the words: “My very first success in Photography.” Cameron had received her first camera as a gift just one month before writing these words. Like most photographers of the time, she struggled with the mechanical operation of the camera and the chemistry involved to create an image.

In the 1860s, photographers were required to work rapidly because all of the chemicals had to be used while they were still fresh. They had to compose the subject for the photograph, hoping the sitter could maintain his or her pose long enough for them to make the exposure. The complexity and urgency of the process led to many technical mistakes, and Cameron's early attempts were no exception. Even though the sitter's face is slightly out of focus, and streaks from the application of the chemistry are evident, it was with great pride and satisfaction that Cameron declared this portrait of tousle-haired Annie Philpot to be the first completed print that she considered successful.

16. Charles Norman with His Daughters Adeline and Margaret (7/1/1874)

This photograph was made shortly after the death of Julia Margaret Cameron's only daughter, Julia Norman, in childbirth. Her widower, Charles Norman, is seated in the center with their two daughters. In their mother's absence, the daughters emotionally support their father. With their arms entwined around him and hands clasped near his heart, they envelop him in a tender, comforting embrace. Cameron probably directed this gesture, which adds great emotional impact.

Family was the cornerstone of Cameron's art and life. This and other photographs of the Normans represent a bonding among the remaining family. Making the series may have helped Cameron cope with her sense of loss. It was Charles and Julia Norman's gift of a camera that became the catalyst for her photography. Cameron later wrote in her annals: “My first lens was given to me by my cherished departed daughter and her husband, with the words, 'It may amuse you Mother, to try to photograph.'”

17. Rosalba (Cyllene Wilson) (1867)

One of the greatest portraitists in the history of photography—indeed in any medium—Julia Margaret Cameron blended an unorthodox technique, a profoundly spiritual sensibility, and a Pre-Raphaelite–inflected aesthetic to create a gallery of vivid portraits and a mirror of the Victorian soul. Condemned by some contemporaries for sloppy craftsmanship, she purposely avoided the perfect resolution and minute detail that professional portrait studios strove for, opting instead for carefully directed light, soft focus, and long exposures that allowed her sitters' slight movements to register in her pictures, instilling them with a sense of breath and life.

Cameron's male subjects included a host of Victorian luminaries such as Charles Darwin, to whom she gave this print. Her female subjects, by contrast, were most often relatives, neighbors, or household servants, portrayed in the guise of literary, historical, or biblical characters.

In this close-up portrait, Cameron presented her adopted daughter Cyllena Wilson as Rosalba, a young bride torn between duty and desire in the play The Virgin Widow by the photographer's close friend Sir Henry Taylor.

18. Magdalene (Brookfield) (5/1/1865)

The woman in the garden is a common theme of Victorian poetry and painting, often representing beauty and romantic love. Magdalene Brookfield, a family friend of Julia Margaret Cameron, is the dark-haired woman strolling through this garden. Her pyramid-shaped figure is centered in the photograph, and so is Cameron's focus. Brookfield's face, hand, and a part of a nearby bush are sharply defined. The rest of the image blends into soft-focus, emphasizing her mysterious, pointing gesture.

Perhaps Magdalene represents the subject of a man's obsession, as in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's 1855 poem, Maud, in which the ephemeral qualities of love and a woman's beauty are ascribed to nature. Like Eve in the Garden of Eden, the woman in nature becomes part of a moral theme of the virtuous woman versus the fallen woman. Cameron probably made this outdoor, full-figure study at the London home of her sister, Sara Prinsep.

19. Charles Hay Cameron (1864)

Alfred, Lord Tennyson once described Charles Hay Cameron as “a philosopher with his beard dipped in moonlight.” As Cameron sits in an armchair facing his wife's camera, his white hair is drenched in brilliant natural light. Although it is winter and he is bundled in an overcoat, his eyes express tender warmth.

This portrait by Julia Margaret Cameron is a rare study of her husband, and one of the first she made after taking up photography. In her later allegorical images, Charles Hay Cameron's patriarchal appearance made him a convincing King Lear and Merlin. But in real life, he fit the Victorian archetype of “genius” with his unruly white hair, as did many of the scholarly men his wife photographed. Cameron attended Eton College and served a distinguished law career in British colonial India. He shared a passion for literature and philosophy with his wife and friends. He also had a tendency to be reclusive. Here, he is portrayed simply as himself--a gentle and solitary man.



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